The Spanish Exam

Already today I’ve dropped my bike twice and ridden out of the mountains in a tropical rainstorm. A bird has hit my shoulder at highway speed. Because of the rain earlier, I am wearing a heavy leather jacket. But it’s 28 degrees and sunny now, and I just realized that the cute Jinotegan boy who rode on the pillion two days ago, broke the sunglasses that were in my jacket pocket.

And at the Uno gas station in Tipitapa, my motorcycle won’t start.

I push it into a parking space at the front of the little shop. A flock of teenage boys has appeared from nowhere, and they hover around poking my carburetor and ordering me to try starting it again so they can see how it doesn’t work.

I wave them away and pull out the toolkit that the German gave me before I left his motorcycle rental agency. Damn, if this isn’t the most useless toolkit I’ve ever had. There are no tire irons, only one crescent wrench, no Allen keys at all, and relevant to the current situation – a Phillips head screwdriver that is too short and stubby to reach the carburetor drain screw.

Masaya, later that day.
Masaya, later that day.

It’s time to put my two weeks of Spanish experience to the test. To the crowd of teenage boys, I announce, “La moto es romper.” (The motorbike is broken.) They stare blankly, a common expression amongst teenage boys.

“Yo necessito un mecanico. Donde es un mechanico proximo?” (I need a mechanic. Where is the nearest mechanic?) Their eyes glazed, several of them wander off. Typical. Show a teenage boy someone having a problem, he’s all up in your business getting in the way. Ask him to be useful, he’s gone like the wind.

I bought some sunglasses from a 12 year old kid. His much older competitor, with another board covered in glasses, approaches, outraged that I bought from the kid instead of him. “Fuck off,” I say, smiling politely.

Eventually a man appears. He says, probably, “Sigues!” (follow) and makes c’mere gestures at me. He is a skinny fellow with a wide smile, wearing dark jeans and a crisp white t-shirt. I can’t tell how old he is, but he looks better than the time wasting teenagers. Perhaps one of them summoned him while I wasn’t looking.

Honda 250 Tornado


“Sabes tu un mecanico?” (Do you know a mechanic?) I ask. He says something, I have no idea what. Speaking Spanish is one thing, understanding what they tell you is a whole other deal. He begins to walk off, still making follow-me gestures. I sigh, and push the bike off its kickstand. He takes my helmet, and we set out through the muddy unpaved lanes, him pushing his bicycle, me pushing my much larger Honda Tornado 250, with steam rising off the shoulders of my heavy black jacket.

Sweat beads on my upper lip, drains down my chest and across my belly. The crappy sunglasses aren’t helping at all. Small children are running beside me in the lane, laughing and throwing rocks at each other. I put my head down and continue pushing. After enough twists and turns that I shall never be able to find my own way back to the gas station, we arrive at a family home with a high iron gate. The man pushes it open and bows me inside.

I’m in a dirt courtyard. There is a huge, ancient GMC dump truck parked near the back. There is a corrugated iron shed with chickens sitting in its shade. There are two very young girls chasing a ball around. They pause to stare at me, then go back to shouting at each other. There is blessed shade at this house, banana trees blocking out the vicious sun and keeping the muddy earth damp and pleasant.

The man who brought me, I have decided, is the mechanic’s apprentice. He has brought the mechanic out of the house. A fat man looking like Super Mario in a wifebeater.

“Que?” (What?) he asks me, probably. I demonstrate how the bike will start, but as soon as I open the throttle, it dies. I do this twice for his benefit.

“Es fango en la carburador, ” (There is  mud in the carburetor) I announce. “Es agua en el tanque. La gasolina es, es…” (There is water in the tank.) I’ve run out of words. “Es mal.” (The gas is bad.)

After a couple of repetitions they seem to understand this. The mechanic grunts and points at his inspection area, a concrete pad with a corrugated steel roof, and I obligingly push the bike up onto the block. He makes me take my luggage off, then I step back.

The apprentice brings a chair for me to sit on, and I sit biting my nails in the shade while the mechanic, his apprentice, and the mechanic’s teenage son buzz around my broken machine.

They seem to be doing what I would do, given tools and space, so I don’t interrupt. The carburetor is drained, then the bottom of the gas tank. “Filthy!” exclaims the mechanic. I peek at the milk jug full of pink liquid. The separation of water and gas is easy to see – there are at least 2 cups of water and not a lot of gas in there. He laughs. I also laugh. “Si, yo veo.” (Yes, I see.)

The fuel filter comes off. The mechanic shakes it vigorously and holds it up to the light. “Filthy!” and presents it for inspection. Sure enough, the fluid in there is the colour of Christmas gravy and totally opaque.

Fuel filter
This pic was taken before he shook all the dirt loose.

“Filthy” is the only English he knows, I believe. I guess it’s enough. To the apprentice I say “La Puma gasolina, y la Uno gasolina…” (The gas at the Puma station, and the Uno station…)


“La Uno es muy bueno?” (The Uno is good?)


“Y, la Puma es no bueno?” (And the Puma is no good?)

“Si!” he nods.

I filled it last at the Puma in Matagalpa. It isn’t the first time I’ve had to push my bike to a mechanic this week.

The filter is flushed with fresh gas and reinstalled. The tank is drained a bit more. There’s some fussing and fidgeting, while his daughters invent a game that involves chasing one another around my chair. The mechanic’s wife comes out and yells at him briefly. He grunts back. A gentle breeze brings the smell of eucalyptus and cooking fire, and the apprentice, now and then, glances at me with a blinding white grin.

I am presented with the bike for inspection. With great care not to upend it in the mud (nearly failed), I ride over some impossibly bright red flower petals scattered in the ruts, to the end of the lane, turn left, pass through a herd of cows, and turn back before I can get too lost.

A Nicaraguan traffic jam
A Nicaraguan traffic jam

“Es bien”, I say, upon returning. Or possibly “Es bueno.” (It’s good.) The mechanic laughs some more and says something in Spanish, points at the carb, then the filter, then twists the throttle, then shrugs expansively. Ok, now for the fun part.

“Gracias por trabajes en Domingo.” I say. (Thank you for working on Sunday).


“Ah! Por blllbbt en Domingo!” The apprentice translates, I guess. They laugh some more.

“Cuanto cuesta?” (How much?) Hmmm, deep frowns. Oh come on man, I’m just trying to give you some money. He pokes the side panel, blips the throttle, stares into the sky for a few moments.

“Donde eres tu?” (Where are you from?)

“Yo rento la moto en Leon” I say haltingly. “Y, yo soy Canadiense.” (I rented the bike in Leon, and I’m Canadian.)

“Hmph.” I know being Canadian is better than being American in this country, but god knows if he believes me. I bet all the damn Yankees claim to be Canadian when they’re travelling.

“C..cuanto cuesta?” I ask again, a bit hesitantly now.

He adopts an aggressive stance and sets his chin firmly. “Ciente.” “Ciente cordoba?” “Si, ciente.”

So, 100 cordobas.

I breathe the eucalyptus trees, listen to his daughters playing, see his trim, perfectly manicured son and apprentice, his own healthy paunch and relaxed self assurance in his own domain. I know I’m supposed to barter. They charge me quadruple, because I’m white, female, and don’t speak the language. I know they’ll respect me more if I talk them down.

The man has repaired my motorcycle and is charging me $4 USD.
I pay him.

I wonder if asking for a nacatamale would be pushing my luck. I can see them in the kitchen. Better get out of here though.

To the apprentice, I ask, “Yo voy a Masaya, cual camino?” (I’m going to Masaya, which road?). “Mumble mumble something whatever,” he burbles enthusiastically in reply. I understand him perfectly – “I’ll show you.” He sets out on his bicycle. I wave to the fat mechanic and his family, and follow slowly on the Tornado. Children again run around my wheels, in a contest to see who can come the closest to getting run over. Chickens saunter arrogantly in front of me. The ground is almost completely dry now, and the cilantro scent of Sunday nacatamales is filling the lanes.

The apprentice stops at the edge of the Pan-American highway and says “Masaya?”


“Masaya!” He points grandly to the south.

“Gracias, senor!”

On the road again.
On the road again.


My route that day:

Choose Your Books Carefully

Books can make us do odd things.

There’s a passage in The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, I think, where the god Odin is in a nursing home. His thunder and lightning days are done, he’s old and tired. Odin doesn’t want to do anything but sleep, and his only passion is the crisp, cool, perfect white sheets on his hospital bed.

Once a day Odin gets out of bed for a short walk and ablution, then snuggles back down into his fresh linen.

Every time I read that book, I change my own sheets soon afterward. In fact, ever since I first read the passage, I spend a few minutes each night and each morning in bed, thinking about how blessed and grateful I am to be indoors, clean, dry, and comfortable between linen sheets. It is a powerful paragraph. Douglas Adams was an artist.

I was affected by 1984. It’s not a fun book to read – it’s thoroughly depressing. You can see parallels of 1984 in our modern world, and it’s frightening. Yet I think that Orwell took too grim of an interpretation of the world, because it’s not as bad as all that. Still, when I was reading it, I was as low as I’ve ever been. Checking out seemed like a reasonable idea. It wasn’t until I cleansed my palate afterwards, with a round of Terry Pratchett, that I realized how deeply the book had affected me, and swore to never touch it again.

This is a passage from The Toyota Way. I’ve bookmarked and copied down this snippet so that I’ll never lose it, because I love it so much.

(Link to the complete chapter)

“Since so much of the success of Lexus depended on achieving these breakthrough performance objectives for the engine, and since this depended so heavily on production engineering, Suzuki presented a number of strict requirements to the engine production engineers, whose response was largely discouraging. Their first reaction was that you cannot make parts that are more precise than the tolerances of the precision instruments you’re using to make them. At the time, Toyota had the most precise instruments in the world for machining engine parts (e.g., high-precision machine tools for machining castings into crankshafts, pistons, etc.). And so Suzuki said, “Oh, OK, I see your point.” But backing away from these breakthrough performance objects would mean the end of his “dream car.” So he turned to his superiors for help and was able to get them formed into a Flagship Quality Committee (The “FQ Committee”).”

This is a chapter in the breathtaking story of Ichiro Suzuki, who, given the “most precise instruments in the world”, insisted that even more precise instruments be manufactured for the first production Lexus.

“At the time, Toyota had the most precise instruments in the world”. That line resonated with me. Such assurance, such lack of pretense, no debate. Just “Toyota has the best machinery in the world.” I would say those words to myself last year when I washed cars, and then I would wash faster, dry more thoroughly, replace the cars more perfectly aligned in their parking spots, and run faster to the next car.

In November I parked in front of the Bruce Hutchinson Library and checked my messages. “Have you ever read a book called ‘The Perfect Vehicle‘?” asked Corey Bergerud, apropos of nothing. (I’ve written about the Bergerud boys before. I’m not close to any of them, but there are dozens on the Island and I haven’t yet met one I didn’t love. A blog post for another day.)

“No,” I texted back. “Good thing I’m at the library.”

Bruce Hutchinson didn’t have it in stock, but the librarian looked it up and directed me to the Central branch, where I checked it out. Over Christmas I read about a woman who, realizing that she loved her boyfriend’s bike more than the boyfriend, dumped him and bought a Moto Guzzi. She rode to rallies in the States, went to track days, took long camping trips with her biker bros and toured Germany, hosted on short notice by the European Moto Guzzi rider’s club.

I can’t afford an Italian bike, but it’s no coincidence that there was a new Kawasaki in my driveway in January.


No one ever does anything new. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and walk in the footsteps of the masters who have gone ahead of us. To read about their struggles is to be inspired, and to forgive yourself for you own shortcomings.

A good way to be inspired to write is to read the biography of Ray Bradbury. He would sit and write 2000 words per day, then take some beautiful woman out to a carnival in the evening. Upon sight of the fun house mirrors, he’d abandon his date and run back to his typewriter to write a story about an oddly shaped man who went to the funhouse to feel normal.

If you need to practice music, try the biography of Stewart Copeland. He threw his drumsticks down after the final Police gig and spent the next 20 years having children, pursuing a polo vendetta against the Crown Prince of England, and writing dubious musicals.

When he picked the sticks up again for the Police reunion tour, he was so rusty and out of shape that Sting would insultingly keep time on his hi-hat. Weeks of steady practice brought him back into fighting condition.

And if you, for some reason, need to build a railroad, there’s always Atlas Shrugged. I’m 1/4 through it – once I finish it I’ll let you know what else you can be inspired to do while being outraged at socialists (because being outraged at socialists goes without saying when you read Ayn Rand).

Pick your books carefully. They’ll change your mind, and your mind will change the world.

I’m secretly a race car driver

The morning I turned 16 I waited by the front door for my dad to take me to the license office.

He was surprised, because I hadn’t told him we were going. It never occurred to me that there could be anything in the world more important than me getting my driving licence on the morning of my 16th birthday.

Anxious years followed as I tried to hide the heat of my desire to take the wheel of every car I encountered. If they knew how badly I wanted it they would look at me oddly, and they already looked at me oddly. No one trusts a teenager who tends to stare into space and leave her wallet in the refrigerator.

I volunteered to haul wood one afternoon for a chance to drive the tractor. A trip to the next town to thrift shop, for a chance to drive on the highway. I can’t express my hatred of thrift shopping without obscenity, so I won’t.

There was a conversation with a coworker – a young man who had ridden his motorcycle from California. He’s an MMA fighter now, then he was a clerk at Safeway. 2 weeks later we took a 90 dollar cab ride to some obscure suburb to pick up my new motorcycle so he could drive it home for me.


That first night, he showed me how to work the clutch and shifter, then I drove it straight into the nearest brick wall. Sometimes love hurts. It hurt again a few months later when I laid the bike down at Cattle Point, parked the wreck in my parking spot and didn’t look at it for three more days, when I noticed I had left my gloves on the gas tank.

The thought of not riding didn’t occur to me. I bought a Silverwing. The seller proudly showed off his wife’s baby bump as he handed me the keys. I had no interest in babies. The Silverwing had a stereo. It played Johnny Cash loud enough to make people roll up their windows.


I dated a young man long enough to borrow his mother’s car and take the final road test for my license, then took a job at a German auto dealership, where all I had to do was move beautiful cars around the lot all day.

On such a day, I took one car to the glass shop and met another young man, who followed me back to work, then home. He took me on a date to a racetrack, where I rode in his friends car as it moved at high speed, sideways, all around the course. I had to leave early, so he gave me his car keys. No funny looks, just trust. Bring it back tomorrow, he said. I can catch a ride home.


We drove to Vancouver, Mill Bay, Shawnigan, North Saanich, Campbell River, Nanaimo, Seattle, Hope, Abbotsford, buying horrible cheap wrecks of cars to drive them into the ground. Sometimes none of the cheap wrecks worked, so we took my third motorcycle, an unreliable 300cc Kawasaki. I remember driving two-up over the Malahat in January with snow on the ground, passed by large trucks as my carburetor struggled with the low air pressure, but I don’t remember being cold.

Some weekends we rose at 5:30am to get the race car started and go to the racetrack. He drove; I sometimes drove and rode in every car that would take me.

The young man left the country, but somehow I still get invited to the racetrack. I’m not sure if the racers accept me on my own, or only as the plus-one of their absent friend. But as long as it lasts, I go, and ride in every car I can. Mind the cash box, or volunteer to wrench for a chance to drive a beater in a hill climb.

These boys spend all their money and time on cars. I question my dedication sometimes – I don’t own a car, have not gone into debt for the sake of racing, I’m not even sure what a coilover is. But racing seems to be the focus of my life.

I still have to hide it. If the universe figured out how badly I want to drive in the hill climb, it would find a way to cheat me out of it. Don’t tell anyone.


How to Stay Warm on a Motorbike for Cheap

I’ve had my bike insured and running since January, and damn if today wasn’t the first decent weather we’ve had in all that time.

Step 1:

Gloves. If you’re a responsible adult, get some that have nice, plush lining, carbon knuckles, leather shells with no perforations. Gauntlets that go all the way up to your elbow. Velcro fasteners. Spend $200.

If you’re an irresponsible adult, like me, who can’t keep track of a pair of gloves for more than one year, get whatever you can for 40 bucks and hope for the best. When you start to feel pain in your fingertips, turn back. When the pain goes away, pull over at once and thaw out.

Step 2:

Jacket… and another jacket underneath.

2013-03-22 17.50.13
That’s a textile jacket with a lining, and a leather jacket underneath.

And a hoodie under that, and a thermal tee under that, and a tshirt as well. And just to be safe, stuff some newspapers down the front to block the zipper draft. And wear a tshirt around your neck, scarf style. Or even just a scarf. But tshirts seem to be easier to wrap around your face, bandit style, to keep your chin nice and warm.

Step 3:

Long johns. I got a super fancy pair of merino ones long ago. Best thing in the world. Wear them under your usual pants, then wear Carhartts over that. Take the Carhartts off before you go into a place of business, those things are disgraceful.

Step 4:

Boots. The higher top the better. I dunno, I’ve just been wearing these, and they seem to work ok. At least, my feet aren’t any colder than the rest of me.

Air Force BootsYou can get them by joining Air Cadets, then keeping your issued uniform after you quit. Or, the army surplus store.

Step 5:

Just stay inside for god’s sake, this is ridiculous.


KZ305 Carburetor Removal and Inspection

First, a question and an answer.

Is it safe to use red Permatex to seal a carburetor? NO IT IS NOT.

This tutorial details the removal and inspection of carburetors from a 1982 Kawasaki KZ305b LTD.

This is the carburetor.

side view motorcycleRemove the seat.

seat removedRemove the air box and tool kit.

Remove the battery.

Turn the petcock to “off” and disconnect the fuel hose from the fuel tank.

Remove the fuel tank.fuel tank removed

Remove the two bolts holding the bigger part of the air box in place. The one on the right has electrical contacts under it – remember to replace them when you put this back together.air box screws

Loosen the screws on the carb boot clamps. Sorry I didn’t get a better picture than this; there are four of them, one on each carburetor boot.

Now is a good time to drain gasoline out of the float bowls. Connect a length of hose to the float bowl drain.

carb boot screwLoosen the drain screw. You’ll have to pull it most of the way out.float bowl drain screw

Pull off the rubber hose connecting the engine to the air box.hose between engine and air box

Pull back the air box, and wiggle the boots off of the carburetor. Carefully pull it out of the frame.

This is the throttle cable. Loosen the locknut, push the spring mechanism back with your thumb as shown, and screw out the end of the cable housing. throttle cable

Then pop the end of the cable out of its bracket. Now the carb is totally disconnected from the bike.pop out cable end(On this occasion, I am not planning to rebuild or thoroughly clean the carburetor. I’m only inspecting them.)

Lay the carb bodies upside down on a flat surface. Hold them over a pan as you turn them about, as there might still be gasoline sloshing around inside.

Carefully remove the 4 screws holding the float bowl in place.

carb bodies pside downWARNING: If it has been several years since the carb was last disassembled, the next steps will almost certainly ruin the seal and you will need to replace it.

Give the bowl a sharp rap with the end of a screwdriver or something to knock it loose. If, as with mine, it’s sealed with gasket maker, use a penknife to pry it off.

Inspect the inside of the bowl. As you can see, too much gasket maker was used, and it was not a gasoline-safe type. The parts exposed to gas have swollen up and this is causing the motorcycle to run badly.

inside of float bowl filled with permatexNext post I’ll post pics of the jets and seals that you need to inspect.